Movie Review: ‘It’ a Frightfully Good Time
The opening sequence in 2017’s It is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the same one in the 1990 TV miniseries, as young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) in his yellow raincoat chases a paper boat down the street and into a stormdrain, where he encounters Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård).
But lest you think this slick new version doesn’t have anything to add, Pennywise soon transforms into sharp-toothed CGI monster and bites off poor Georgie’s right arm, sending a geyser of blood splashing to the pavement before he drags the boy into the sewer.
It is one of King’s most beloved novels, and one of his most archetypal, combining childhood the childhood nostalgia of stories like Stand by Me with all sorts of otherworldly horrors he has become better known for: the chief antagonist of It is not the clown but fear itself, represented by all manner of classic horror creations like werewolves, mummies, a gill man, and even Frankenstein’s monster.
Like the 1990 miniseries, this version keeps it simple: It becomes less about the kids confronting their diverse fears (though those themes are certainly still here), and more about them conquering a demonic clown in the sewers beneath their sleepy town of Derry, Maine.
And like Tim Curry’s frightening portrayal in the earlier adaptation (that first shot of the razor-toothed Pennywise reaching for Georgie will be burned in the mind of anyone who saw it an an impressionable age), Bill Skarsgård is sufficiently creepy as the clown, a lazy eye and drop of drool subtly channeling the spirit of off-kilter demonic menace.
But that’s not enough, the producers of this new version decided, and every time Pennywise morphs into a many-toothed CGI monster, vomits up goo, and chases the kids around with a Jacob’s Ladder shaky-head effect, he becomes a little less scary.
But here’s where this version of It is a rousing success: through the story of a group of young outcasts bonding over their shared experiences of terror, and learning to work together to overcome their fears.
They’re led by Bill (Midnight Special’s Jaeden Lieberher), Georgie’s older brother who’s still convinced the boy is still alive in the sewers beneath the town. Bill recruits his friends, including uptight Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), and motormouthed Richie (Finn Wolfhard, as the same prototype he portrayed in Stranger Things), to help him search for Georgie and eventually combat ultimate evil during their summer break.
This Losers’ Club eventually takes on new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who has conveniently been researching the terrifying history of Derry disasters and can provide needed exposition, and home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), who bonds with the group over another shared fear: terrifyingly over-the-top bully Henry (Nicholas Hamilton), who in many ways is a more palpable threat than Pennywise.
They also take on a rogue girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), who comes to know the supernatural threat after a fountain of blood pours out of her sink. Lillis, channeling a teenage Amy Adams, is so good here she ties the whole film together; her surprisingly vivid characterization - as a victim of abuse coming into her own as a woman - is a nice relief from the otherwise male-heavy proceedings.
But while It soars when it sticks to the kids and their grounded real-world adventures, the scary stuff falls flat; that’s surprising given director Andy Muschietti, who displayed a sure hand with similar material in 2013’s Mama, and the general efficiency of other recent big-budget horror films; most of the recent Annabelle: Creation is creepier than than anything seen here.
2017’s It is not a faithful adaptation of the Stephen King story, which also included elements like a turtle god that vomited our universe after a bout of indigestion, but it does quite nicely capture the Stand By Me-like vibes at the heart of the story.
It’s also a slicker, sleeker, better acted and directed version of the miniseries, which (like many King adaptations in the ‘90s) suffered from relatively low production values and network TV sensibilities. Still, like any remake, it struggles to compete with some of the iconic imagery of the earlier version.
And as fans of the novel and miniseries will already know, this It is only half the story; given lofty ratings by critics and high box office projections, we can expect to see Chapter 2 hit cinemas in short order.